Experts are calling for level 4 restrictions to be tightened as case numbers continue to rise during lockdown – or risk the outbreak dragging on for many weeks.
These measures could include cutting the numbers of essential workers in the workplace, improving protective barriers and increasing mask-wearing – particularly in indoor areas – to combat the highly infectious aerosol-spread virus.
The call comes as Cabinet meets today to decide on whether to extend level 4 for Auckland and Northland from 11.59pm Tuesday, an outcome that looks increasingly certain as the number of positive tests continue to rise.
It is expected Northland will remain at level 4 for at least another week and Auckland potentially for two more weeks. The rest of the country moves to level 3 at the same time.
The total number of cases in this outbreak now stands at 511, with 83 new cases announced yesterday and 82 on Saturday.
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said authorities expected to see the high number of cases continue over the next few days – largely because of the large number of household contacts and more infectious nature of the Delta strain.
This was neither concerning nor unexpected, he said, but it would be worrying if we started seeing more cases in the community.
Of the 511 cases, 453 cases have been clearly epidemiologically-linked to another case or sub-cluster, while there are a further 58 cases for which links are yet to be fully established.
Importantly the “R”, or reproductive, number of the virus had dropped below one, meaning each person on average was infecting less than one other person.
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Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said it appeared the case numbers were beginning to plateau and it was good news the “R” number was dropping.
“It shows people in Auckland are doing what they need to do to stamp this out. We really got there in the nick of time with lockdown.”
However, while not rising exponentially, case numbers were still high and would take a while to stamp out under current settings, Baker said.
“We want to get Auckland out of lockdown as soon as possible. But unless we can suppress transmission more it is looking like they could be at level four for many weeks more.”
Importantly, Baker said any points of transmission needed to be closely examined and restrictions around them tightened up.
The Ministry of Health has been unable to provide clear data about the nature of the new cases during lockdown, importantly how many have been infected within their household bubbles and how many infected in the community. The Herald has been asking for this information since lockdown began.
When asked on Sunday for these figures, Ardern was not able to give a clear answer but said there were 35 “mystery cases”.
She said more than 75 per cent of the positive cases reported yesterday were contacts of known cases and more than half of all cases yesterday were household cases, showing how infectious Delta was.
A total of 25 people had exposure events outside of the household and there tended to be essential work sites that were not customer facing.
There had also been transmission at four essential workplaces between staff members in non-public-facing roles.
Overall there were at least 73 essential workers infected during this outbreak, though it was not clear how many had been infected since lockdown began and how many had passed on the virus to others.
In New South Wales, experiencing the worst outbreak in Australia with more than 1200 cases and six deaths on Sunday, many Delta cases spread through essential workers.
Baker said, unless key points of transmission were tightened in these areas, Auckland’s lockdown could drag on for weeks.
This could involve reassessing the definition of essential workers, and seeing if any could actually work from home instead.
Other measures would be recognising the aerosol nature of the virus, and tightening up indoor areas with mask use and barriers.
Outside of essential services there should also be close scrutiny of how cases have spread so the public are aware of why extra measures were required.
“If we want to keep the whole country understanding not just what but why, we need that information presented in a clear way.”
Each day Baker said the ministry should be explaining as much as it can about how the latest cases have occurred, and what is being done to plug those gaps.
Dr Siouxsie Wiles said staff might need mandatory vaccinations and be required to wear N95 face masks if working in an area where it was impractical to keep windows or doors open or ventilation can’t be retrofitted.
The microbiologist said physical distancing, perspex barriers and even low-grade face masks weren’t good enough at stopping Covid-19 in some enclosed spaces.
“The big risks are indoor spaces at the moment.”
Ardern said they were looking closely at the rules.
“We’ve asked for further analysis of the nature of these workplaces, so we can assess whether our level 4 rules on who is operating is being adhered to, and whether our public health protocols for those businesses that are operating are fit for purpose.
“This may not be a problem with the rules, say, on the factory floor but what is happening perhaps before or after shifts, or even during break times.
“We’re looking at all of this in more detail, if we need to tighten up our restrictions further, we will.”
Ardern has also acknowledged the ongoing positive cases, combined with lockdown, could be hugely unsettling, impacting on mental health and stressed that support was available for anyone who needed it.
“It was okay to feel frustrated and there were places to go for help.”
She said there had been a spike in calls to Youthline since the last lockdowns and an additional $1m would be put into increasing support, particularly for rangatahi in Auckland and Northland.
There was also targeted assistance for Pacific communities, which had borne the brunt of the outbreak so far, she said, and assistance for those struggling to access food.
An extra $7m was announced yesterday to assist organisations with things like distributing food parcels and welfare packages.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said New Zealand could take over other OECD countries by the end of this year if Kiwis keep up the level of vaccination rates the Government has seen so far this lockdown.
There were nearly 80,000 people vaccinated on Saturday, and over 90,000 the day before.
Robertson said New Zealand wouldn’t run out of vaccine.
“We won’t run out of vaccine. We have orders coming and by the end of October we will have everything in terms of the vaccination that we need.”
– additional reporting John Weekes
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